Slowing to the pace of a slug in a tropical storm as life speeds by; ROME DAYS

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The Independent Online
Excuse me if this piece sounds a bit lethargic, but I've been having a bit of trouble getting out of bed recently. Actually, even once I'm up it seems like a titanic struggle to get to the office. And now that I am finally here there are so many distractions - telephones ringing, colleagues inviting me out for coffee, chit-chat about this and that and nothing in particular. Life just seems to speed by without anything ever getting done.

I would put this feeling down my own incorrigible tendency to laziness, except for one small comforting thought - it seems to be happening to everyone around here. I don't know what it is about Rome, but it has this habit of causing all who set eyes on it to slow down to the pace of a slug in a tropical rainstorm.

Even the most brilliant of my friends and acquaintances take several hours over coffee, newspapers or computer games to prepare themselves for their remarkably short, if intense, daily bursts of creativity. Government ministries, which provide steady jobs for tens of thousands of Roman families, are notorious for their absenteeism, late arrivals, early departures and extended breaks.

At the Italian newspaper where I work, whole mornings of conferencing give way to lengthy working lunches, followed by afternoons of newspaper- reading and leisurely telephone calls. The panic sets in around six o'clock - at about the same time that British newspapers are getting ready to wrap up their first editions.

Now that July has arrived, police are out prowling the streets to ensure those shop-owners ordered to stay open for the holiday period don't pull down their shutters and sneak off to the beach. But even the police tire quickly; the traffic wardens employed to keep non-resident drivers out of the city centre during daylight hours often disappear from their posts around lunchtime.

Any excuse not to work seems just fine, whether it is an obscure saint's day or someone's mother's birthday. A few months ago, my local cafe closed for the weekend because the usually effusive owner found the weather too cold. During a heat wave last month, a handful of other shops in the district closed down for the opposite reason.

Whenever I travel - to Paris, or London, or Athens, or even to Milan - the first thing that amazes me is the sight of thousands and thousands of people marching off to work every morning. It's not something one notices around here. Work may get done, but only with the greatest reluctance.

How to explain it? Visitors down the centuries have observed the pleasures of the Italian dolce far niente, that state of dreamy indolence brought on by warm weather, good food, bewitching countryside, charming medieval towns and the unhurried good nature of the Italians themselves.

But the atmosphere in Rome is not quite like that; here, the lethargy is only pleasant up to a point. Sometimes it feels downright menacing, as though the obstacle to productivity were some kind of weight bearing down on the city and that the only way to get anything done is to get the hell out of here. One can only speculate why this should be - the product of decades of corrupt central government bureaucracy, perhaps, or the lack of any economic or social purpose in Rome other than the parasitical acquisition and jealous guarding of power.

Rome certainly cannot claim to have been well-run in the past 50 years or so, and the result is a city of creeping provincialism where it takes a monumental effort to accomplish the most mundane of tasks - whether it is braving the crazy traffic, fighting through overcrowded, poorly organised supermarkets, or standing in line at the post office to pay a telephone bill. Any one of these is enough to exhaust you for the rest of the day.

Yes, it is wonderful to stroll among baroque palaces, sit out in piazzas soaking up the early summer sun and feast on home cooking washed down with cool Frascati. But the city is remarkably unvaried in its pleasures, and if the Romans talk endlessly about fast cars, food and football, it is partly because there is nothing else to talk about.

"If modern Rome has a marketable product, it must be desperate, existential boredom," the travel writers Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls have observed, "the sort of numb vacuity that used to inspire French novelists and philosophers, and now only serves to nourish the gilded indolence of a city that has been with us too long."

On bad days, I am reminded of what the late comic actor Massimo Troisi, star of The Postman and a Neapolitan reluctantly transplanted to Rome, said when asked if he considered himself lazy. "Lazy is what I used to be," he insisted. "Nowadays I am heading towards total inertia."

Andrew Gumbel